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Happy TFT Testing: Learnings From Japanese Auto Assembly Plants

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This picture of a TFT display under test at Adafruit’s factory reminded me of an interesting anecdote from the This American Life episode about the NUMMI auto plant in California.  When it was opened in the 80’s NUMMI was a collaboration between Toyota and General Motors to help bring Japanese methods of manufacturing to the United States.

One of the differences between Japanese and American auto manufacturing is how they treat problems with products on the assembly line.  In American auto plants any problem that stops the assembly line becomes a big deal that riles up management and is feared by all the assembly line workers.  However in Japan the culture is completely the opposite and workers stopping the line to fix defects are encouraged and even celebrated.  The thinking is that fixing a problem early is always cheaper than fixing it later when it gets into customer’s hands.

An interesting anecdote from the NUMMI plant story is that workers could stop the entire assembly line if they spotted a problem, and when they did so happy songs would play over speakers to celebrate the stopping of the line.  In the episode you can hear these cheerful ambient sounds inside the NUMMI factory–it almost sounds like a carnival or casino instead of a car manufacturing plant!

Looking at the TFT test procedure above it’s interesting to see the parallels with the cheerful environment inside Japanese auto manufacturing plants.  Push the screen into the tester, wait for the happy dog image to show up, and celebrate–woo hoo! another successfully working product ready for customer’s hands.  Manufacturing doesn’t have to be boring or stressful, instead it can celebrate each little success with a happy song or even dog picture. 🙂

Check out the full episode from This American Life to learn more about the NUMMI plant and Japanese manufacturing techniques.  Sadly with the downturn in the economy during the later part of the last decade the NUMMI plant was closed, however it has since reopened as a plant to build Tesla’s amazing electric cars.  I hope the happy spirit of Japanese manufacturing lives on in Tesla’s assembly line today!


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